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Official: Iran Provokes U.S. Warships; Pres. Obama Unveils Plan To Streamline Govt.; Interview With Pervez Musharraf; Christian Leaders Weigh GOP Presidential Endorsement; Mitt Romney's Mexican Roots

Aired January 13, 2012 - 17:00   ET



Mitt Romney live in South Carolina where he has a tougher fight on his hands than a lot of people thought. This hour, conservative leaders are getting ready for secret talks that potentially could have a big impact on the campaign on the south.

Also, Pervez Musharraf survived four assassination attempts. Now, he's risking another. I'll ask the ousted Pakistani president about his dangerous plans for a comeback. Stand by for my exclusive interview.

And she beat the odds to become a semifinalist for a prestigious science price. If you think that's impressive, get this -- she's homeless.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

First, exclusive new information just coming in to the SITUATION ROOM. We're learning about two disturbing close encounters between Iranian navy boats and U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Persian Gulf. This provocative behavior only fueling already heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. Let's get straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's got the details. What do we know, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at a time of heightened tensions, the Pentagon still wants to say this is relatively routine, but listen to what happened last Friday in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf to both the U.S. navy warship and a U.S. coast guard cutter. The navy warship first up, first up, the "USS New Orleans" was going into the Persian Gulf.

It was going through the Strait of Hormuz when three Iranian speedboats approached it at high speed and came within 500 yards of high-speed within the range of this navy warship. The navy warship signaled the Iranians to back off. They ignored all signals. That is in opposition to standard maritime procedures.

Eventually, we're told, they did break away. Another incident, the same day, a U.S. coast card cutter called the "Adack" was up in the Persian Gulf. It was just about 75 miles east of Kuwait when it was harassed by high-speed Iranian boats, small boats. That came at also at high-speed.

The personnel on board the coast guard cutter said that they observed Iranians with ak-47s, and they believe one of the machine guns at the front of one of those Iranian speed boats was pointed right at them. Eventually, a larger Iranian naval vessel intervened and the small speedboats backed off.

Routine or not, these types of encounters are extremely concerning to the U.S. navy. You know, the question really is, Wolf, how close do you let an Iranian speedboat get to you before you have to do something about it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure there must have been some nervousness on those U.S. ships. Thanks Barbara. Thanks very much.

The United States, meanwhile, is putting Iran on notice when it comes to the country's latest threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is taking a closer look at what the Obama administration is doing right now behind the scenes. Jill, what's going on?

JILL DOUGHERTY, FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, what Barbara is talking about really shows there's a question. Does Iran really understand those red lines that the White House, the administration is laying out? Now, the state department says no question that Iran has gotten the message, but others are warning there's real danger of miscalculation.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Don't even think of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, a blunt public warning to Iran from defense secretary, Leon Panetta.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: That's another red line for us, and that we will respond to that.

DOUGHERTY: With the danger of military confrontation over that vital choke point escalating, the U.S. is using every channel it has, including secret back channels to lay down its red lines to Tehran.

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We used our regular channels of communication of which there are several to make our message known privately in addition to the very strong messages we're sending publicly.

DOUGHERTY: The U.S. and Iran don't have diplomatic relations, so Washington talks to Iran through its protecting power, Switzerland. It also uses Turkey, whose leaders talks with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as Qatar, Oman, and Japan.

And a senior admiration official tells CNN the U.S. now has asked Iran to establish a direct channel of communication so that miscalculations don't lead to military confrontation. MICHAEL RUBIN, IRAN EXPERT, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: They don't know how the west operates, and they may be convinced that the west is a paper tiger. They may actually believe their own rhetoric.

DOUGHERTY: Michael Rubin briefs U.S. navel personnel a board ships bound for the Persian Gulf on Iran's history and strategy. Most recently, the aircraft carrier, John C. Stennis, which Iran warned not to return to the gulf. The combination of giant U.S. aircraft carriers, small heavily armed Iranian boats in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, he says, could be a deadly combination.


DOUGHERTY (on-camera): Now, the White House insists that publicly or privately, the message is the same, and the state department says they have no doubt that Tehran has gotten the message, but with tensions growing, Wolf, there are no guarantees.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jill Dougherty, over at the state department.

Let's go to Syria right now where there are reports of at least 11 civilian deaths, including three children just today amid vicious new flashes with security forces. This is video purportedly showing just one of many anti-government protests taking place across the country.

Our CNN senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is getting some rare government access inside Syria and took to the streets before the chaos broke out.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Friday, close to noon, driving into the center of Hamah, streets deserted, checkpoints manned, reinforcements raided (ph). One of Syria's oldest cities braces for what's become the weekly day of rage against the government.

(on-camera) The streets here almost deserted, very quiet. Just a few people wandering around, but all the stores shut. And as you drive into the city, you get a sense there's very little traffic on the roads. Army checkpoints all along the highway between this city and Homs for the south. It feels quite tense. Just look down here. You see the police and army lined up at the end of the street.

(voice-over) A 2 1/2 hour drive from the capital, it is the city President Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to lose. Thirty years ago, his father killed 30,000 people here, putting down an Islamist revolt. Hastily covered writing on the wall tells you today's opposition is not far away. In the center where Arab league monitors live, soldiers seem keen to show they've got riot gear rather than rifles, in a city synonymous world over with Syrian repression.

(on-camera) The soldiers here say that on a normal weekday, all these stores would be open, but as we've driven in to the city, the whole city here is shut and closed. These cars and these trucks are some of the only vehicles that we've seen on the streets.

It's Friday, and this is the day where there are normally big riots in this country, and that's why the soldiers are right on the street. They've got wooden sticks, batons, riot shields. Water cannons have been placed out, one over here, the light one, and another one back here.

(voice-over) Under government pressure, we leave without finding out what happens next. Within a few hours, opposition spokesmen accuse these soldiers of firing tear gas and live rounds, killing one protester. We weren't there to see.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Hamah, Syria.


BLITZER: And Nic is joining us now live on the phone from Damascus. Nic, when you're in Hamah, did you see any evidence at all of that brutal massacre that occurred in the early 1980s by Bashar al- Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, we didn't. The government officials who were guiding us into the city didn't take us anywhere near that location. It's so scorched into the memories of everyone in this country and the region as well. You only have to mention Hamah, and people still shake at the scale of that putdown -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of people, of course, remember that brutal crackdown, that massacre that occurred then. I know there's a debate among many analysts here in Washington, inside the government, outside the government about Bashar al-Assad, the president, the leader of Syria. Is he really in power or is he just the figurehead?

I have no idea if you've been able to get any sense of that, but I know you're familiar with the debate. What's your sense?

ROBERTSON: Wolf, it is very hard to tell when you hear on the ground. I mean, what is very clear is that this is a president who's been in the shadows for much of the last few months, perhaps, really since last summer. And he's come out on a political rebound in the past couple of days.

What was very telling about his speech earlier in the week, he said I was convinced that I was lying. He was talking about an interview with Barbara Walters from ABC in November. I was convinced I was lying, but now, I realized that was just a media manipulation.

You get the sense that this is a man, while he's on the political rebound, he's being pushed out. He's being told, you need to get out there. You need to be strong in front of the people and you need to be our man. You need to hold the country or your supporters together. So, you do get a sense he's -- he's only part of the leaderships back from here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I get that sense as well. All right. Thanks very much, Nic, who's in the scene for us in Damascus. I always tell him to be careful. I hope he will be. Thank you.

You might know that Mitt Romney's father was, of course, a very famous politician in his own right, but you probably don't know a surprising fact about his roots, but you will, and secrets talk about the Republican candidates.

Christian conservative leaders are meeting behind closed doors to see if they can agree on an endorsement.


BLITZER: In South Carolina this hour, Mitt Romney is asking military veterans for their support. But take a look at this live picture from South Carolina (ph), Mitt Romney expected to be joined by two key political allies, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, and Senator John McCain. He won the South Carolina Republican primary four years ago.

Look at this, our just released poll shows Romney is the clear frontrunner among Republican voters nationwide with a 16-point lead over his nearest rival. Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum, they're in a tight race for second place.

In South Carolina, Romney has a much smaller advantage. He gets 29 percent, a new poll of likely GOP primary voters. Newt Gingrich, though, close behind 25 percent. Ron Paul has climbed to 20 percent. Rick Santorum has slipped into single digits.

CNNs Joe Johns is covering Romney's fight for South Carolina. Joe, Romney's days at Bain Capital keep on hurting him to a certain degree. So, what's going on? What are they saying? Specifically, what's the candidate saying about that?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly does keep following him around. He had a large supportive crowd here in Aiken, South Carolina, a standing room only crowd, in fact, but he made no direct comment about Bain Capital, the controversy over whether he was a layoff specialist, if you will, while he was working there.

He did make an oblique reference to the nature of free enterprise in a speech before this crowd here. Listen to it.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will work to get good jobs back. And a lot of people want to talk about how we create jobs. By the way, it is not to walk away from free enterprise. It is not to say that there's something wrong with the free market system. No, it's instead to hold fast to that system and to make it work for the American people.

How do you do that? You make America the best place in the world for innovators and entrepreneurs and job creators, by having tax rates that are competitive, by having regulators and regulations that are up to date and that encourage the economy as opposed to dampen it. You make sure that we open up new markets for American goods. (END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Now, while Mitt Romney was out on the crowd, shaking hands, following the event, I asked him several times about Bain Capital, but he didn't respond to the question. I also caught up with the South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, and asked her about Bain Capital, as well. Here's what she said.


JOHNS: Hi, governor. What do you think of this Bain Capital stuff with Mitt Romney? Is it a problem for it?

GOV. NIKKI HALEY, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Not at all. I don't think it's a problem. I think it's a problem Republicans start criticizing free market. That's the problem.


JOHNS: Also, the presidential re-election campaign weighed in on the issue of Bain Capital and free enterprise as well, suggesting that Romney is hiding behind free enterprise in the middle of this controversy, just one more sign that the president's re-election staff is going to take a few shots at this guy just in case he does become the nominee -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And if he does, they'll take a few more. Are you getting any sense, watching what's going on in South Carolina, that the whole Bain Capital thing is getting any real traction with voters?

JOHNS: You know, it's interesting. At this event here today in Aiken, I asked a bunch of people out in the crowd about it. All of these are Republicans voters. Some of them hadn't even made up their mind as to whether they're going to vote for Mitt Romney.

Virtually, every person I talked to said they were just a little bit hurt, upset, appalled, whatever the word you want to use, that this issue had even come up, because they said, they are supporters of free enterprise and free markets. So, it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that is hurting Mitt Romney, at least, with people here in Aiken, South Carolina -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Joe, thank you. And please, be sure to tune into CNN Thursday night for our southern Republican presidential debate where the candidates will square off just days before the South Carolina primary. Our debate this coming Thursday night 8:00 p.m. eastern only here on CNN.

President Obama has a new plan to streamline the federal government. We're going to tell you how he says he can save several billion dollars.

And space junk is threatening once again the International Space Station.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now, including a major move to restructure the federal government. So, Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. President Obama is unveiling a plan to combine several government agencies that focus on commerce and trade, and ultimately, eliminate the commerce department. He says the move would cut 2,000 jobs through attrition and save $3 billion over the next decade. One catch -- he needs Congress to grant him the authority.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a real opportunity right now for us to fundamentally rethink, reform, and will make our governments that it can meet the demands of our time. So, it's worthy of the American people and so that it works. This should not be a partisan issue. Congress needs to reinstate this authority that has, in the past, been given to Democratic and Republican presidents for decades.


SYLVESTER: A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner says small businesses are more concerned about government policy than how the departments are structured.

And Standard & Poor's has just downgraded the credit rating of nine European nations, including AAA-rated France and Austria. The S&P lowered the long-term ratings on Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, and Spain by two notches, and on Austria, France, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia by one notch. The ratings agency says European governments haven't done enough to address debt problems. U.S. investors were nervous ahead of the downgrade with stocks closing lower.

And it is a momentous day in the words of secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. For the first time since 1988, the U.S. will exchange ambassadors with Myanmar. The move comes after the Asian country released more than 200 political prisoners. The U.S. downgraded its diplomatic mission in Myanmar 24 years ago when the country underwent a violent military coup.

And rarely that something so big have to move for something so small. The International Space Station will reboost to avoid a two- inch piece of satellite debris. The move will change the orbit of the station by about a quarter of a mile. Even though the debris is tiny, NASA isn't taking any chances. The crew will also close all the window covers, Wolf, just in case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Better to be safe than sorry. Thanks very much.

The ousted president of Pakistan is getting ready to go home. It could cost him his life. Stand by for my exclusive interview with Pervez Musharraf. Can anything stop him from returning from exile?

And a teenage girl in the running for a top science price, that she's not letting the fact that she's homeless stop her.


BLITZER: Political turmoil exploding in Pakistan right now where government officials are denying reports have been imminent military coup (ph) despite the firing of the country's defense minister and a controversial investigation into a memo allegedly asking for U.S. help reigning in the Pakistani military.

It's all unfolding as the self-exiled former Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, gets ready to go back and attempt to return to power. It's a move that could cost him his life. Let's bring in our own Brian Todd. He's got the details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It could cost him, Wolf. As you know, Pervez Musharraf survived at least four assassination attempts while he was in power. He's taking a huge risk now, and it may not even pay off, because things are very different now in Pakistan from the time he left.


TODD (voice-over): He's known as one of America's most crucial and confounding allies in the war on terror, cracking down willingly and often on militants, but also leaving U.S. officials questioning where his loyalties were. As Pakistan's president for nearly a decade, Pervez Musharraf survived several assassination attempts. He's now willing to risk another.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, FORMER PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: I can do it if I'm there, lead from the front.

TODD: Musharraf is planning to return to Pakistan later this month from his exile in Dubai, and put together a possible run for parliament. It could lead to an assent back to the top of power in his country.

What's his real motivation for wanting to go back? What's his angle?

MICHAEL KUGELMAN, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Well, I mean, Musharraf, like many politicians in Pakistan is very proud. He's very confident. He's very stubborn. And he believes in this narrative very common there that he can essentially be this man that just swoops in and rescues the country.

TODD: Rescues it analyst, Michael Kugelman, says from a civilian government scene by many Pakistanis as inept and corrupt.

(on-camera): But some Pakistani officials say if and when he returns, Musharraf will be promptly arrested for alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. One prosecutor says an arrest warrant has already been issued for Musharraf.

(voice-over) Musharraf and his lawyers said the accusations are baseless. There's no evidence showing links between Musharraf and Bhutto's 2007 assassination. A U.N. investigation found Musharraf's government failed to adequately protect Bhutto, an accusation Musharraf denies.

Analysts say there's no guarantee Pakistan's powerful military will support Musharraf this time around, and they say some of the voters who would support Musharraf are now gravitating toward Imran Khan, a glamorous wildly popular former cricket star who's eyeing a run for top office. Analyst, Christine Fair (ph), doesn't think Musharraf's got any shot at a comeback. I asked her if he beats the odds, would he be a better partner for the U.S. than the current government?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He'd have to accept the same positions that Imran Khan is marking out. So, to be very clear, we want an equal relationship with the Americans. So, that's not going to happen, right, because the two countries are not equal.


TODD (on-camera): Fair says tog et elected, Musharraf also might have to adopt Imran Khan's position not to continue supporting the U.S. war on terror, a significant turnaround for Musharraf and, of course, one that won't sit well with the Americans, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's not guarantee that the Pakistani military will support Musharraf. What's changed over these past few years, because he rose through the ranks of the military?

TODD: He's a military guy. Analysts say, look, the military there is always concerned about its image. They know that a lot of his moves while he was in power are still very, very deeply unpopular in Pakistan. For instance, he seemed, as one analyst said, seemed to have rented out the Pakistani army to the Americans.

Still, the military is very cognizant of all that. They say they may provide him with some security when he comes back, but maybe not much support.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very, very much.

And I spoke exclusively with the former Pakistani president just a little while ago.


BLITZER: Joining us now from Dubai, the former president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. Mr. President, thanks very much for joining us. Are you still planning on going back to Pakistan at the end of this month?

MUSHARRAF: Yes, indeed I am. Until now, I am planning to go back.

BLITZER: Is there a specific date when you plan on flying to Pakistan? MUSHARRAF: Well, I said I'll go between 27th and 30th of January. I haven't fixed the date as yet.

BLITZER: Why are you going back?

MUSHARRAF: Well, because I feel that the country needs me, and I feel that the country is going down so badly in all socioeconomic elements and from all governance point of view, that it is high time that we bring about another political alternative which can produce a government with the majority of the people, with a mandate of the people who can run Pakistan, instead of doing politics only. And I think I have a role to play there.

BLITZER: You know they say, the authorities there, they're going to arrest you as soon as you walk off that plane? Are you ready to be arrested?

MUSHARRAF: Well, there is a danger of that, yes. Yes, indeed, there's a possibility of that, absolutely. And when I've decided to go back, I have to take that risk.

BLITZER: You know, there's another risk that's even worse, if you can imagine, that someone might try to kill you. How worried are you about that?

MUSHARRAF: Well, more than myself, my family and my friends, my well- wishers, are worried about that much more than myself. But I have faced such threats all along since I was the president, and that threat will remain now also.

I need to make proper security arrangements of my own. And also, I expect the government to give me security as authorized to an ex- president of the country.

BLITZER: You know, this reminds me, Mr. President, of a conversation I had with Benazir Bhutto back in 2007, when she told me she was going back to Pakistan. And I told her I thought it was a bad idea.

Listen to this little exchange that I had with her here on CNN. Listen to this.


BLITZER: You're a relatively young woman. How scared are you though? Because as you know, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, they have attacked you in the past, and they clearly would like to go after you now.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, FMR. PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: Yes, of course they would like to go against me. There's a lot of threats, because under military dictatorship, an anarchic situation has developed which the terrorists and Osama have exploited. They don't want democracy. They don't want me back.

BLITZER: Your family has a tragic history, unfortunately, a tragic history of assassination. BHUTTO: I know the past has been tragic, but I'm an optimist by nature. I put my faith in the people of Pakistan, I put my faith in God. I feel that what I am doing is for a good cause, for a right cause, to save Pakistan from extremists and militants and to build regional security.

I know the dangers of it, but I'm prepared to takes those risks.


BLITZER: Are you prepared to take those risks, Mr. President? Because, you know, I've known you for many years, I've interviewed you on many occasions. And frankly, I'm pretty worried about your security, your safety if you go back to Pakistan.

MUSHARRAF: Well, yes, I am prepared for the risk. I have to be prepared for the risk.

You take security measures as much as you can, but then 100 percent security cannot be guaranteed by anyone. So, therefore, an element of risk is always there. And that's where I believe in destiny, and that is I believe -- where I believe that we have to leave everything to God Almighty, then, once you have taking steps for your security. Whatever then happens is left to destiny.

BLITZER: How worried should we about Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador in Washington? I spoke with his wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament, here in Washington a couple of weeks ago. She's worried about the safety of her husband now that he's there and he's not allowed to leave the country.

Is he in serious danger of his life?

MUSHARRAF: I don't think so. I think, unnecessarily, they are creating a hype and overblowing this, as if everyone is out to kill him or something. That is the not the reality.

I don't think it is real at all. However, his not leaving the country is a different issue. There's a case against him in the supreme court regarding the memorandum he sent to Admiral Mullen, and that has to be tried. Therefore, he's not being allowed to leave the country.

Otherwise, as far as danger to his life is concerned, I don't think -- I don't think that is a real danger.

BLITZER: The other great U.S. concern right now, Mr. President, is the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan and some loose nukes, if you will, getting into the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists.

I know that the most senior U.S. officials are worried about your nuclear arsenal. Is that a legitimate concern?

MUSHARRAF: Well, if the country goes down and it gets into the hands of religious extremists as a country from the government, then only it is possible that all the arsenal then belongs to them, because it is the country and they are in charge of the country. But I don't see that as a possible.

I don't think any religious party today is capable of winning the elections, so the other way is that they take them through force, use force. I don't think that's a possibility, again, with the military guarding it, with the strategic force command of (INAUDIBLE) of 20,000 people manning and guarding all these installations and them being in very secure places and very dispersed. I don't think it is a possibility.

BLITZER: Is U.S./Pakistani relations right now back at another low? And you remember what it was like before 9/11. You were in power. Is it at that poor level right now?

MUSHARRAF: We're at a very poor level. I don't think they were at this level even before 9/11, when I took over.

I don't think -- I had a reasonable amount of respect around if the world even before 9/11. But not they certainly are at their lowest ebb. And it is extremely disturbing to anyone who understands geopolitics. It is very disturbing, and I only wish that Pakistan and the United States mend fences and we move forward on a course which is in the interest of the region, in the interest of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the United States.

BLITZER: General Musharraf, good luck over there. Be safe. We'll stay in close touch with you. Thank you very much.

MUSHARRAF: Thank you, Wolf, as always.


BLITZER: And I write about General Musharraf on my blog, Check it out, my blog post, posted a little while ago.

Christian conservatives admit they're not thrilled with Mitt Romney, but they insist a secret meeting this weekend isn't about bashing the front-runner.


BLITZER: One Republican presidential candidate could get the blessing of Christian conservative leaders this weekend. There's a big meeting getting under way in Texas that only seems to be happening because Mitt Romney is the current front-runner.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is joining us from Dallas with more.

What's going on, Ed?


Well, about 150 Christian conservative leaders are getting together in a small ranch near Brenham, Texas. We asked if we could come along to see what would be going on. The owner of the ranch told us that we weren't welcome. In fact, he said, "You'll be sorry if you bring that video truck down here."


LAVANDERA (voice-over): The heavyweights of conservative Christian leaders are starting to worry after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney may have a clear path to the GOP nomination. And they fear he won't carry their banner.

More than 150 Evangelical Christian leaders, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer, are gathering here at the secluded ranch of Southern Baptist activist Paul Pressler in tiny Brenham, Texas. They're trying to find consensus around a candidate and warn the media to stay away.

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: It's not a bash Mitt weekend, but having said that, it's clear that this meeting wouldn't be taking place if social conservatives were comfortable with Mitt Romney.

LAVANDERA: Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council helped organize the meetings.

PERKINS: Every campaign has been given the opportunity to provide a surrogate to speak to the group. It's a desire to not see what happened in 2008 repeated, and that is conservatives were kind of segmented.

LAVANDERA: Four years ago, a divided social conservative vote paved the way for John McCain to win the nomination, a candidate they weren't crazy about. 2012, it's deja vu, with social conservatives split between Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.

JOHN GREEN, POLITICAL SCIENTIST, UNIVERSITY OF AKRON: These kinds of meetings have occurred before in previous presidential elections. And sometimes they've been able to coalesce around a particular candidate, sometimes not.

LAVANDERA: John Green is a political scientist from the University of Akron.

GREEN: It sometimes takes weeks or months for them to be able to deploy their resources. So whatever they might come up with in their meeting might not be enough time.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Those resources, boots on the ground, robo calls, phone lists, could help push one candidate into a one-one-one slug-fest with Romney, or, as some political experts suggest, these leaders, with the help of some wealthy donors, could form a conservative Christian super PAC.

BOB VANDER PLAATS, PRESIDENT, THE FAMILY LEADER: Leaders just need to lead right now.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The meeting itself isn't sitting well with everyone. Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader in Iowa, was invited to the meeting, but says it's too late. He's backing Santorum and says the other leaders need to pick a side.

VANDER PLAATS: Instead of going to Texas, I'd tell them to cancel their plane tickets or cancel their charters and get to South Carolina, where they can help out.


LAVANDERA: Now, Wolf, as clearly you can tell, not to expect any kind of consensus, some fanfare at the end where they all come out announcing their support for someone. Instead, they said you'll probably see some of these leaders individually announcing some endorsements over the next couple of weeks. But more interestingly enough, maybe some of these people urging some of the candidates to get out of the race -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, setting the scene for us.

Thanks very much, Ed. An important meeting under way in Texas.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now. Candy Crowley is joining us, our chief political correspondent, the host of "STATE OF THE UNION," which airs Sunday mornings.

You spoke with the former head of Bob Jones University, Bob Jones III. In 2008 -- correct me if I'm wrong -- he endorsed Mitt Romney. Not yet this time round. Why?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not yet. And it doesn't sound as though he is. And I spoke to him for our show on Sunday and just asked him that exact question, "Why haven't you endorsed Mitt Romney?" And here is what he had to say.


BOB JONES III, FMR. PRESIDENT, BOB JONES UNIVERSITY: In 2008, he was very solicitous of the Evangelical vote. If he is that today, I am unaware of it.

I certainly have had no contact with him, and so I don't know whether he feels he needs it or wants it, whether he considers it a plus or a minus for him. That was a different dynamic then. The other players in the Republican primary frightened me greatly.


CROWLEY: And by "other players," he means John McCain, who of course went on to win in South Carolina.

Both the Reverend Brad Atkins, who is head of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, about 600,000 members, and Bob Jones, say that they believe this Evangelical vote is still very much up for grabs.

BLITZER: You saw this new poll for the American Research Group that came out of South Carolina, likely Republican candidates, primary voters. Romney 29; Gingrich, 25; Ron Paul, 20; Perry, 9; Santorum, 7; Huntsman, 1; undecided, 7. You look at those numbers, you think of the Evangelical vote, you know South Carolina. What goes through your mind?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, one of the things I think is interesting is, when you talk to Evangelical Christians in the framework of this election in South Carolina, there's one word that comes up -- "electability." And they really want Barack Obama to be a one-term president.

I think there are colliding things here. I think there is still some residue of Mormonism not being a Christian religion. So there is certainly a battle for the hearts and minds of Evangelicals going on here, but one of their primary goals, and even these two guys that I talked to for this weekend, said, yes, electability counts.

BLITZER: You've got Rick Perry, David Axelrod and others on "STATE OF THE UNION."

CROWLEY: And others.

BLITZER: Sunday morning, 9:00 a.m. We'll be watching, Candy.

CROWLEY: Thanks.

BLITZER: Thank you.

We know Mitt Romney grew up in Michigan, governor of Massachusetts, but there's another place that begins with the letter "M" in his background that may surprise you.


BLITZER: Mitt Romney is looking beyond the next primary in South Carolina -- the Republican contest in Florida right at the end of the month. The Latino vote is a huge factor in Florida politics, and Romney has a little known connection to the Hispanic community.

Our Lisa Sylvester is looking into Mitt Romney's family roots in Mexico.

Lisa, tell us about it.

SYLVESTER: This is not something that Mitt Romney talks about much on the campaign trail, but Romney's dad was actually born in Mexico. His grandparents and father lived there for more than a decade, always maintaining their American citizenship.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): On top and under scrutiny, Mitt Romney's history and background are under a microscope. One little known fact, that is father, George Romney, the former Michigan governor, was actually born in Mexico.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My dad was born in Mexico of American parents living there. SYLVESTER: Mitt Romney's great grandfather, who had four wives, was part of a wave of Mormons who moved to Mexico after the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds Tucker Act in 1887 which cracked down on polygamy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Edmunds-Tucker Act actually disincorporated the church because of its practice of polygamy. All of its property was confiscated. People had to take an oath that they did not support polygamy.

SYLVESTER: Mitt Romney writes in his book "No Apology" that the family stayed there until 1911, when Mexican revolutionaries threatened the expatriate community. His grandparents returned to the U.S., but other Romney relatives stayed.

The television network Univision tracked down several people who say they are Romney's second cousins.


BLITZER: The former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.

SYLVESTER: Romney's heritage would probably be just another political footnote, but the GOP front-runner is headed toward the Florida primary. Romney's positions on issues like immigration haven't won him favor among the Latino community. He opposes the Dream Act that would give undocumented students the right to stay in the United States and favors tougher controls on illegal immigration.

M. ROMNEY: The problem is that we're not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.

SYLVESTER: In a poll of Latino voters by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 23 percent support Romney in a head-to-head match-up with Obama. An irony, considering Romney's family ties to Mexico.

RUBEN NAVARETTE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: In terms of dealing with Hispanics or the immigration issues --

SYLVESTER: CNN contributor Ruben Navarette says Romney faces a tough climb winning the Latino vote.

NAVARETTE: Whether or not he's born from Mexico, or from Mexican stock or not, really doesn't help Mitt Romney with Latino voters because he has done such a terrible job of dealing with the immigration issue. He had soured Latinos on his candidacy, and there is no feasible way that he could do well with them come a general election.


SYLVESTER: Navarette says, historically, Republicans needed about 30 percent of the Latino vote to win the White House. So right now, Romney has about 23 percent. So we may hear him talk more and more about his Latino roots as we go forward.

BLITZER: We'll see what he says. Thanks very much, Lisa.

All right. This just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We just got our hands on some video of our top story, the Iranian Navy boats provoking U.S. military ships.

The first video shows three Iranian speedboats carrying guns and getting just a few hundred yards from the USS New Orleans in the Strait of Hormuz last Friday. The boats never fired on the American ship.

The other video shows a similar scene. This time, the speedboats are chasing a U.S. Coast Guard cutter near Kuwait.

Again, no shots were fired.

Imagine you're a teenager attending a prestigious school, but once you leave class, you have nowhere to go. A young woman in New York knows this scenario all to well. Stand by. Her amazing story is coming up.


BLITZER: It's an amazing story of beating the odds. Truly amazing, I must say. A teenager, an aspiring marine biologist, who is competing with other students at the highest levels of the field -- and get this -- she is doing this even as she is homeless.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow in New York. She's got details.

What a story, Mary. Tell our viewers.


You're about to meet an extraordinary 17-year-old. She is one of 300 students, semifinalists nationwide, in a top honors science competition. But it's her story of determination that makes her stand out.


Samantha Garvey is an aspiring marine biologist with a keen sense of tough shells.

They all congregate with each other.

SNOW: She spent years studying mussels and how they protect themselves. But at New York's Brentwood High School, she's learned some lessons of her own about being tough when the odds are stacked against you.

This week, she was chosen as a semifinalist kin the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. But Samantha got the exciting news at a homeless shelter. Her family has been living there since being evicted from their home December 31st.

SAMANTHA GARVEY, INTEL CONTEST SEMIFINALIST: It's worrisome, you know? It's just been really worrisome, because you think, where I am a going to be? If something doesn't come through, am I going to be in a homeless shelter?

SNOW: Samantha's parents were both injured in a car accident last year which caused them to fall behind on bills. As the family struggled, Samantha says she got her inspiration from school and her science teacher, Rebecca Grella, a two-time breast cancer survivor.

GARVEY: She told us her story. I thought, wow! I'll be damned. You know? Like, that is amazing, and I took that from her.

SNOW (on camera): How does it feel to hear this?

REBECCA GRELLA, TEACHER, BRENTWOOD HIGH SCHOOL: It works both ways. What I take from Sam is her humbleness, her ability to reach out to others, to give effortlessly.

SNOW (voice-over): Samantha's story grabbed the attention of officials in New York's Suffolk County. They are now providing the Garvey family with public housing.

GARVEY: This is just the most amazing thing you could ask for. I know everyone -- we're all in tears here. Like, we can barely compose ourselves enough to speak.

SNOW: With the tears, there was disbelief from Samantha's mother, Olga.

OLGA GARVEY, SAMANTHA'S MOTHER: I break in tears. I say, "Why did this happen?" And you say, yes, this is happening.

SNOW: Samantha's father says his daughter has always been a fighter, weighing only two pounds when she was born.

LEO GARVEY, SAMANTHA'S FATHER: She's gone from one little tiny thing to a giant. A giant of a woman.


SNOW: And Wolf, the Garveys hope to move out of the shelter into their new home within the next two weeks. Samantha, meantime, is waiting on word about whether she'll be accepted to Brown or Yale -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I wonder which one she'll go to. I assume she'll be accepted in all those schools. This has become a really big story in New York and the New York City area, hasn't it?

SNOW: Yes, it truly is. And to see a 17-year-old with such poise and determination to really fight against those odds -- and her parents were saying that she has been telling them that she has wanted to buy a home for them and wanted to take care of them, all while she is studying so hard in school.

BLITZER: Whatever college she goes to will be lucky indeed to have her. What an amazing young woman.

And Mary Snow, you're amazing as well. Thanks for bringing us that story.

SNOW: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And please be sure to tune in next Thursday night to CNN for our Southern Republican Presidential Debate, where the candidates will square off just before the South Carolina primary. Our debate, this Thursday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

That does it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.